November 22, 2017

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Workplace surveillance and privacy: who’s monitoring whom?

Workplace surveillance and privacy: who’s monitoring whom?

Back in 2001, the American Management Association surveyed its membership and reported that some companies were monitoring their staff. In 2003 and 2004 they did the same and found an increase in monitoring activity across each survey.
This was of no surprise–9/11 had scared many organizations into some sort of monitoring of the activities occurring within its walls and firewalls.
In 2005, the AMA ran the survey again. The results showed that over three quarters of the companies who responded monitored their employees’ web usage; half of them also conducted video surveillance, reportedly to guard against theft and sabotage. When compared to the 2001, 2003 and 2004 surveys the amount of employee surveillance had increased significantly.
Tools such as ETelemetry’s [Metron Enterprise Behavior Analysis](http://www.etelemetry.com/product_metron.htm) easily trace who talks to whom via the different communication channels. This allows managers (or anyone with access to the results) to see how employees communicate, with whom they communicate, identify communication hotspots (such as groups who communicate more than others), link communication activity to productivity, uncover communication isolates and spot communication that might threaten the organization.
Ask our colleague [Shel Holtz](http://blog.holtz.com) his views on employee monitoring; you are likely to get a very passionate response! And it’s not just privacy concerns that get his back up; companies often justify their monitoring activities on productivity grounds.
I will let Shel himself put forward the case against such arguments; a case I happen to agree with him on. Because the work:personal membrane has been so thoroughly punctured, it is ridiculous to expect employees not to conduct personal business on company premises using company-supplied equipment.
What I am looking at here is the slide that has occurred between what an employee expects–most often created at induction into the company–and what an employee actually experiences over time in the company.
Many companies start off with little monitoring, yet increase such activities over time. Traditionally there are three ways these increases are sold to employees: as coercive control, as benefiting the company, and as benefiting the employee.
Work that I conducted many years ago on the concept of ‘Employee Psychological Contracts’ (see sources, below) showed that the degree to which employees invest in their employer is very largely dependent upon the unwritten expectations that the employee creates in their head about how much the company is going to invest back in them.
The challenge, of course, is that very often these expectations are both unstated and known only to the employee. The company that fails to meet these unwritten expectations, or breaks from previous behaviour that supported these expectations, runs the risk of damaging trust, leading to a less efficient employee.
Now that employees can publish their views about their employer in so many ways (forums, blogs, podcasts, vidcasts) compared to even the recent past, the employer who ‘ramps up’ surveillance activities risks a backlash that can be expressed either through the internet, through intentional or unintentional sabotage, through reduced productivity, or through increased staff turnover.
Employees generally support electronic workplace surveillance, but when an employee’s personal privacy barrier is threatened, employees must recognise that the threatened employee will react.
Indeed, it’s not just threatened employees who are worried about the fast-creeping growth in surveillance. A high-tech employee reported:
> “As we go forward, we start to gather all types of information about people because saving information is cheap. The problem is that when I want to catch someone or not hire someone, I can go back and then gather all this information and create a case against anybody I want. That is very, very dangerous.”
So what are the boundaries, and where do they exist?
Generally, the boundaries involve inappropriate company attitude and behaviours, the monitoring of personal messages, the use of inappropriate monitoring technologies, monitoring in certain locations, and monitoring to build a case against someone.
As one insurance company manager said,
> “Employers and top-management managers have to understand that an appropriate balance needs to be achieved between their legitimate interests in monitoring employees and employees’ rights to privacy in the workplace. We must take care not to infringe on employees’ privacy rights.”
In summary, the use of surveillance should be balanced. It should be cost effective, it must balance company interests against employee rights, it must balance the company’s need to know what its people and equipment are doing against creating an atmosphere of distrust of employees and alienation from the company.
Because, as we all know, disgruntled employees can do far more damage than their individual salary would suggest.
*Lee Hopkins is a business communications consultant specializing in internal communications. He blogs regularly at [leehopkins.net](http://leehopkins.net), and is a regular contributor to the [For Immediate Release podcast](http://forimmediaterelease.biz).*

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